Monday, August 8, 2011

Tisha B’Av in a transition house

I felt weaker and less energetic today, and Julia wondered why.  I had half-forgotten that tonight was Tisha B’Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar.  Tisha B’Av is the climax of three weeks of mourning in the Jewish calendar.  It is a time when traditional Jews refrain from getting married, cutting our hair, and listening to pleasant music, among other customs and laws.  These examples of mourning are intensified during the Nine Days, when we stop doing laundry, taking pleasant baths, and eating meat and wine except on the Sabbath.  We mourn because the First and Second Temples were destroyed on Tisha B’Av, and we believe that the holiness of the entire world was dramatically diminished by the destruction of both Temples.  We believe that not only the future of the Jewish nation but the destiny of the world was forever altered on these days with the loss of our direct form of spiritual connections to G-d. 

The  mourning is climaxed with the 24 hour fast on Tisha B’Av from sundown to sundown.  Marital relations and bathing are also forbidden on this day.  Since Torah study is considered the primary pleasure in Jewish life (aside from eating), Torah study is also prohibited on this day except for reading the saddest portions of the Hebrew Bible and Talmud.  I cannot fast largely because I take psychiatric medications which require me to eat.  On the night of Tisha B’Av, we Jews are commanded to sit on the floor and go to the synagogue.  We sit in the synagogue listening to the haunting chanting of Eicha, the Book of Lamentations, which is read in a mournful tone to match its heart-rending subject. 

For the first time since I became an observant Jew in 2000, I had no way to go to a synagogue on Tisha B’Av.  And so I simply read the Book of Lamentations in my room, and then read many other Jewish articles on the Shoah (Holocaust) and other similarly uplifting topics.   The Book of Lamentations tells the horrific story of a nation bereft, where the infants are dying of hunger at their mothers’ breast, and where desperate mothers are driven to eat their own children.  It also tells the tale of a nation shattered by the destruction of its holiest site, the Temple, and by the forcible exile of its people from their homeland. 

Judaism says that these events are Divine punishments for Jewish sins – and I would say in response that there is no question the Jewish people have sinned grieviously, both in the land of Israel and in exile.  But I would add that there is no ‘sin’ grave enough to make us deserve such horrendous cruelty.  So I depart dramatically from the traditional Jewish rendering of this day.  And yet on this day, like no other, I long for connection with my Jewish people. I love everyone in the HOEF so dearly, and I feel welcomed and loved by everyone so much.  But still my heart yearns to be with my nation on this day of mourning for our national tragedy.  And this day is said to be a day when Jews pray for internal unity, or Achdus, and Ahavat, or love, because the division between Jews has been the cause of our destruction throughout our  history. 

Well we Jews continue to be plagued by 2,000 years of genocidal hatred.  It is painfully clear to me that the world has learned nothing from the Shoah, the destruction of the European Jews. The hatred and terrorism against Jews continues unabated, whether from radical Islam and the PLO in Israel or from constant attacks on the Jews in Europe and South America.  The world does nothing to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon that would wipe the Jews off the map because I think most of the world secretly wishes for the end of the Jews.   And tragically I don’t think I could ever imagine a world without Jew-hatred.  Although I have lots of loving friends who support Israel and the Jews, I know you are a tiny minority in a sea of cruelty and hatred.      

I also believe that although Tisha B’Av contains many lessons which are specific to the Jewish nation, yet its wisdom has universal human application.  As sad as I feel about the Jewish national tragedy, I am happy to be spending my first Tisha B’Av in freedom.  I am a free person who is not being emotionally and verbally terrorized by my family of origin for the first time in my life.  And so my intense mourning for the Jewish national calamity is balanced by a profoundly deep sense of gratitude to Hashem, our G-d, for having given me the strength to liberate myself from captivity.  I am also thankful beyond words to the people in this transition house who have stood by me every moment of my struggle for freedom: C, A, R and her daughters, and of course Julia, Gisel, Marie, and Ibis. 

And I think it is clear to all compassionate human beings, regardless of religion or sex or income level or race, that our world is profoundly broken.  We have a global epidemic of domestic violence and child abuse.  The worst global economic depression in 70 years has left tens of millions of people unemployed world wide, and nothing is being done to help these people find work and support their families.  Food prices continue to sky-rocket amid budget cuts for programs helping the poorest people in the U.S. and world-wide.  

The African continent has been shattered by the catastrophic effects of the AIDS epidemic, which has wiped out 30 million people and destroyed the extended family structure in many African countries.  In addition, genocide continues unabated in the Darfur region of Sudan for 8 years now with no end in sight.  Systematic rape and mass murder continue to be the lot of the desperate people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and nothing is being done to protect the women and men of this country from systematic rape and abuse.  I just read that 26% of the men in the Eastern provinces of the Congo have been sexually abused at some point in their lives.  A tremendous famine also stalks 10 million people in large parts of East Africa, particularly conflict-ridden Somalia which is at the mercy of radical Islamist terrorists.  We also should not forget that extreme poverty continues to kill babies, children, and pregnant women in the developing world every hour of every day.

In Syria thousands of people have been slaughtered because they peacefully rose up for freedom.  The world has failed to meaningfully condemn these crimes against humanity, let alone verbally support the freedom struggle of the Syrian people and their legitimate demand for regime change.  The Syrian people may yet free themselves from their tormentors, and yet they will not forget that the world abandoned them in their time of suffering.  Indeed for last Friday, the first Friday of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, the Syrians had a slogan: “G-d is with us.”  Syrians came up with this slogan because they are sickened that the free world and the Arab world is not on their side.  The same moral bankruptcy that characterized the global indifference to the slaughter of the Iranian freedom fighters in 2009 has returned in a new and ugly form in the world’s deliberately callous non-response to the crimes in Syria. 

There is no simple or single answer to this global trauma.  But I think the beginnings of an answer lie in a rededication to the sanctity of all human life, regardless of the person’s gender, race, religion, or income level.  I think it starts with human beings coming together in solidarity to support one another.  It starts with everyone reaching out beyond their comfort zone to help someone of a different race or religion. It begins with a  recognition that we are all responsible for one another, and that we cannot remain silent in the face of global atrocity, poverty, genocide, and war.    

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